FACE OF AUGUST 2012
Allen Lee Winfree
SOUND OF SILENCE
Allen Lee Winfree was born apart from the noisy world most people live in. Born deaf the cause of which is not known, the sound of nothingness serves as the familiar score of the silent movie that is his life. Silence is his constant companion, a permanent circumstance that he personally has learned to appreciate and accept. Still he often has to overcome much in order to communicate with the rest of the hearing world.
While it is natural for the hearing population to anticipate the difficulty deaf people have in adapting to the hearing world, what is more fascinating is the opposite: our inability to understand and communicate with them.
Perhaps a huge part of the problem has to do with our own prejudices and stereotypes, a factor Allen had to learn from a young age. "Being a teenager was rough, especially being the only deaf person in the entire school," he recalls. "I often got into fist fights and had to deal with judgmental people on an every day basis." True to his kind nature though, Allen is quick to add that it didn't stay that way for long. He noted that as students matured, "his social life took a turn for the better -- especially in college."
College was a remarkable experience for Allen. He was the first deaf student to graduate with an MBA from West Virginia University. An avid Mountaineer fan, he was instantly attracted to the seeming openness and friendliness of the campus. Along with a transcriber and, at times, an interpreter, Allen went through each class more easily than in previous years, when he was left to read the teachers' lips and to rely on what was written on the board.
His most memorable experience in college, however, was at a mandatory international trip to China. Explains Allen, "Being a deaf adult who had to constantly find ways to adapt growing up, I found myself adapting to cultures of other countries far quicker than most hearing people I have traveled with."And adapting to the deaf is something that at times can be awkward, a fact Allen finds funny. "Sadly, stupid questions don't always involve alcohol. I have actually been asked. Are you deaf? Can you drive a car?, and "CAN....YOU....READ...MY....LIPS?", he muses. His personal favorite? "You're deaf? REALLY? I'm happy knowing that you can't hear me scream in bed!"
According to Allen, the most common mistake people make is not realizing that deaf people can do everything a hearing person can do....except, that is, to hear. He suggests that when trying to communicate with the deaf, to always make eye contact when speaking to them so they can read your lips. Deaf people will be more than happy to find alternative ways to communicate with you by writing things down on paper, having you read their lips, or even teach you the alphabet if time permits.
In fact, communicating with Allen is easy. His humor and ability to make everyone comfortable are traits that his friends and acquaintances find admirable and attractive. He communicates using American Sign Language, reads your lips, and speaks almost so entirely effortlessly that you forget that he can't hear you. "My hearing is so severe that I am unable to listen to music, to the radio, or speak on the telephone," Allen says. "But that's okay. I sleep like a baby through thunderstorms. ha ha."